U.S. EPA today said it intends to widen its rules for coal-fired power plants to include limits on toxic metal discharges.
The move would for the first time regulate the millions of pounds of arsenic, mercury, selenium, lead and similar pollutants released annually in the plants' wastewater streams, which can seep into waterways and contaminate local drinking water supplies.
"Current regulations, which were issued in 1982, have not kept pace with changes that have occurred in the electric power industry over the last three decades," the agency wrote in an announcement.
While EPA has focused on reducing air pollution from the power plants' smokestacks, the process often simply shifts the pollution from the air to the water that is used to "scrub" the boiler exhaust.
"Treatment technologies are available to remove these pollutants before they are discharged to waterways, but these systems have been installed at only a fraction of the power plants," the agency said.
Toxic waste from coal plants became a national concern in December after a Tennessee Valley Authority plant spilled millions of pounds of coal ash into a river, an accident that experts called the biggest environmental disaster of its kind. Coal ash ponds contain most of the toxic discharges from power plants.
Federal law requires EPA to review its power plant discharge rules each year and decide whether to revise them. But the agency has not made a decision on the rules since 1982, saying in each of the past five years that it was continuing to study the issue.
That study is now complete, and the agency will propose a rule revision in mid-2012, EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said.
Environmental Integrity Project, Defenders of Wildlife and Sierra Club yesterday announced they would sue EPA in 60 days if the agency did not produce the rule (Greenwire, Sept. 14).
EIP attorney Jennifer Peterson called EPA's announcement "great news" but said the groups still intend to sue the agency to force it to act quickly.
"These rules are nearly 30 years overdue, and we need a deadline for regulation," Peterson said. "That is what our lawsuit is about."